Coffee with Creatives: Filmmaker Diane Bell

Inaugural Coffee with Creatives interviewee Diane Bell, on the set of her film Bleeding Heart, with Jessica Biel.
Inaugural Coffee with Creatives interviewee Diane Bell speaks with Jessica Biel, while on set for her film Bleeding Heart.

NOTE: Below is the original text version of my interview with Diane. After our talk, I decided to turn Coffee with Creatives into a podcast. You can now listen to our talk here.

Welcome to the first post of a new, recurring feature here on mdibiasio.com!
To skip straight to my interview with filmmaker Diane Bell, click here.

The idea for Coffee with Creatives came to me while thinking about how to solve two problems. As I mentioned in the introduction to my previous post (the first of another “new” recurring feature), the two main goals I have come to adopt with my work here, and in general, is to push for a greater sense of interpersonal empathy and, related to that, to be a better member of the various communities of which I am part.

In addition to providing testimony about the origins and processes behind my own work, I want to more often use this space to discuss the work of others, not only in terms recommending the work itself but as a way to identify practices, resources, and workflows that might be useful to readers. Over the course of the last few years especially, I’ve met (and have formed friendships with) a lot of interesting, similarly-minded people. It’s a far cry from the pre-Multiverse days, and I’d like to keep it up.

Lately, though, with all the pressures I’ve put on myself, to finish The Videoblogs, and to keep moving in general, despite the ongoing challenges of the artistic lifestyle — it’s become difficult to get out and actually meet people (especially online friends from Twitter), even after forming general plans to do so. This, in turn, has also made it harder to commit to doing my part to build community, and to share information here, in the sort of ongoing and more useful ways that to me would be a good complement to the semi-regular essays I otherwise post in this space.

So, Coffee with Creatives is my attempt to find a way to set aside some time to hang out with some cool people, in real life (as often as possible, some virtual coffee-drinking will go on), as well as to take the opportunity during that meeting to ask questions about their lives as creatives, such that you and I can learn some things, and, perhaps, feel less alone as we struggle to create.

And, as I have said so many times before, I believe all of us are fundamentally creative.

From now on, twice per month, I will have coffee with a creative person (filmmakers, writers, musicians, visual artists, organizational professionals friendly to the arts) and interview them based on the same general list of questions as those asked below. Probably, as was the case during this first conversation, other questions will also come up, as my guest and I begin digging into details. For the beginning, especially, I will probably keep things fluid in an effort to find out what format works.

Today’s inaugural post is with Writer/Director Diane Bell, who I met on Twitter during a Seed&Spark #FilmCurious chat. We quickly became online friends, and then met briefly in person when I caught her sophomore feature, Bleeding Heart, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Diane’s first feature film (and first film, ever!), Obselidia, premiered at Sundance in 2010, where it won two awards. She’s also currently crowdfunding her third film (on Seed&Spark), and her campaign ends TODAY (May 8th). Check it out when you’re done reading, and pitch in or share the campaign if you feel so inclined.

One last quick note…

After recording my talk with Diane, it occurred to me that Coffee with Creatives may be better suited to the podcast format. Some nice back-and-forth went on at points, that I’ve mostly omitted here, because I was pressed a bit for time in getting this out, and also, for now, I think it’s more important to hear what she has to say only, without me interrupting with information about my work that you may already know or can otherwise find here later. I’ll need some additional time to source the podcast idea out, and to see if and how I could make it happen.

But I hope you enjoy the interview. It was a fun talk. Check out what Diane has to say below, and please feel free to ask a question or add your point of view in the comments.

What’s your primary mode of creative output?

 I still think of myself primarily as a writer. Specifically, a screenwriter. I also direct films.

 What are you currently working on?

The film I’m working on right now is called Of Dust and Bones and I wrote it and am intending to direct it this summer. It came to me really as a reaction to how I was feeling last year. I don’t know about you but I was feeling very depressed about the world. I go through phases. I think the world is getting less violent, overall, compared to the last century, to look on the bright side. But suddenly last year I just felt really like, “This is too much”.

diane3
Diane at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

The world was so cruel and so sick and it didn’t seem to be getting better. And in the midst of that I was also having a sort of struggle finishing my second film, Bleeding Heart, which recently premiered at Tribeca. I was really having a tough time and I was really questioning everything.

And out of that came this movie, Of Dust and Bones, which is addressing these questions, like: How do we live in a world that has this terrible problem? (Note: The main character of Diane’s film is a woman whose war-photographer husband died in Syria).  And that was the question that was driving me that I felt I had to write something about. For me, I’m definitely somebody who, the things that I write, they always come from that in a sense, like some sort of problem I see in the world that I can’t really process in my own life so I try to process it through a story. So, if all goes to plan, we’ll be shooting Of Dust and Bones in July.

What do you get the most joy out of, and/or what would others say you’re best at, not including the above? Creative or otherwise.

In life in general, I get the most joy out of being present. That is why I write and why I direct. Those things bring me joy because they allow me to access that zone of presence.

I’ve been a longtime practitioner of Ashtanga yoga, for fifteen years now, and that gives me huge joy, as does my meditation practice. And my child. Being a mother. Looking after my little guy, who has given me the greatest joy ever. Because it’s just presence. Children are just little zen masters who wake you up to what’s important in life and what really isn’t, and there’s no doubt that that’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

How do you balance a commitment to presence with the reality of how hard it is to produce a film? Do you work hard to keep that goal of remaining present trickling down throughout the production?

For me, yoga definitely informs my approach to filmmaking, in terms of how the focus is on the process as opposed to the result. And during the throes of it, I’m really calm. Someone will visit me on set and say: “Wow, you’re the least stressed”. I guess I have a real clarity when I’m in that situation. I think it comes from yoga because I totally let go of the result.

Because I think, whenever we start thinking of results — that’s when we get stressed out. To me, the result, you don’t control it. You’re never in control of how it’s going to turn out. You’re not in control of how it’s going to be perceived by other people. A film can be brilliant — frequently, brilliant films come out and nobody watches them. It’s a terrible business. Twenty years later everyone acknowledges it’s a brilliant film. There’s no control over any of it.

And I think for me, the relief from that is just not being stressed, just to be focused on the process and what you’re doing. One thing at a time, in a sense.

In my last film, there were definitely challenges with some of the people I was working with. They had some very different ways of working than I did. I’m talking specifically about producers. And it was really hard. And it did push me. What it pushed me to, ultimately, was to really think hard about my process, and how I worked best, how I want to work. I said to myself, okay, this was a mistake, we have different ways of working, maybe we shouldn’t be working together. And I think when you realize that, you ask: What do I value?

For me, that clarified my own path. So I’m making a much smaller film this time because I know what’s important to me and what I want to do. I realize that some things aren’t important. How do I tell stories that I really care about? How do I get to work with people who are in a similar frame of mind, where we can push ourselves creatively to take risks — rather than minimize them, which is the typical thing in our industry.

I think that kind of distress — this is the joy of something like meditation. It can give you that little bit of distance from distress, so that you can assess it in a different way and learn. Certain stresses, you realize that they aren’t worth stressing about. And other things, maybe you say, “Well, this is something we can learn from”. None of us are perfect and we’re always going to have anxieties and difficult things on this path — because it’s a hard path. That’s the bottom line of it. It’s really hard. Sometimes I wonder why we do it. What’s the point?

For me, for each filmmaker, for every artist, you have to sit down and think. What is the point? Why are you doing it? What is it about for you? And when you realize, really, what it’s for — and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be something different for different people — for me I think it’s about that process, and about accessing moments of total presence through that process.

Bizarrely, I think that’s why I do it on a personal level. To have these moments of truth. To try to capture one of those on film. To me, that’s the goal, and what keeps me at it, I think. The things that are stressing us are things we just have to look at and say: Why is this causing me stress? What can I do about it? What can I learn from it?

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced, or are currently facing, at this point in your creative career? How have you addressed (or how are you addressing) that challenge?

I think the biggest challenge has been my own doubt and fear. Especially, I see some people who are incredibly confident, and they’re twenty-two or something, and they already feel like they deserve a huge audience. And I would say I’m the total opposite of that, and started out, just, with such an enormous sense of doubt, but still also with a strange compulsion mostly towards writing.

I think I’ve always been drawn towards storytelling. But when I was growing up I didn’t know any writers or filmmakers. It was so far-fetched. It was the opposite of the culture here, which is like: “You can do it!” It was more like: “Who do you think you are”? And I feel like that sort of doubt crippled me for many years. It took a long, long time for me to sort of work through that in different ways.

I’m gaining confidence now. But it’s hard-earned. Now it comes from focusing on the film and getting rid of the noise. Because fear comes, again, when we’re thinking about the result. Thinking about how people will judge our work. What the responses will be. Instead of just thinking about the work itself and being in the flow of it.

I think that’s definitely been the biggest challenge, because once I overcame that somewhat, things blossomed and bloomed and opportunities arose and films got made. But it wasn’t until I crossed that bridge in my own head — and that was a big bridge to cross.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Scotland but I grew up in Japan, Australia and Germany. My dad worked in the rubber industry. My parents are both Scottish, from a very working class background. My dad worked for a rubber company. He started working for them when he was seventeen, and he’s a really bright guy and he ended up, when he retired, the CEO of the company.

But, when I was growing up, especially as a woman, the best you could hope for was: “Go to university and get a good job as a teacher or secretary or something like that”. There was definitely not the sort of mindset that said: “Become a writer and make movies”.

[My parents] are blown away by what I’m doing. They can’t believe it.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a creative? What did you learn from it?

I think the biggest mistake I made — and I’ve thought about this a lot over the last couple of years — I made my first film, Obselidia, completely off the grid. I made it completely out of a sense of frustration.

I had sold a script and had been hired to write two original scripts. So I was making money as a writer, but I was getting frustrated by the fact that nothing was getting made. I would see this project that “was definitely going to happen”…just fall apart. And it was totally out of my control.

Out of that I decided to make my first film and it was kind of nuts. It was a crazy thing to do. I had never directed a film before. I hadn’t even made a short film. And suddenly I was going to make a feature. I just took a leap and did it.

And we did it in such a free way. The whole way that film was made was sort of organic and amazing and it was a great experience and the process was fantastic. The end result was incredible because it went to Sundance. It had no stars in it and we made it for less than 140,000 dollars and it was this incredible thing.

So that was the smartest thing I ever did. To have this leap of faith and courage and just do something. Do it without attachment to results. Because I didn’t do it thinking it was going to get me anywhere, just that I was going to learn to make a movie.

After that, then, I got into the conventional mindset. Getting into Sundance was a great thing, and then it was a terrible thing in another way, because instead of “Let’s just make another movie” — suddenly I had a manager and an agent and started doing all these meetings and I got into this conventional head-space again.

And I remember, after Sundance, I had this other script I had written that was very much like a micro-budget movie, too, and I showed it to a couple of people and they said: “Well, you don’t want to do that, because then you’re going to be stuck in that microbudget world,” and I thought, “You’re absolutely right, I have to do something that’s more ambitious”.

So, I shelved that. And I could have made another movie right then. A year after Sundance, I could have had another movie. And i would have learned so much and would have continued to grow as an artist. Instead I got into situations of development. Exactly what I had made a movie to get out of — I was right back in there. It took me five years to make another film.

And, when I made my second film, it was all sort of conventional. I pitched the idea to someone, and they developed it with me, and then the money came from a production company and it was all done in this conventional way and I was really a director for hire on my own project. It wasn’t really my project. From day one, I felt it was developed in ways that weren’t true to my heart, but I felt like I had to deliver to the financiers. The biggest mistake is getting into that head-space of, for me — and this doesn’t apply for everybody because I think it depends on what kind of films you make, and what you’re about — but for me the biggest mistake is thinking that that conventional path is a better one.

I was in that head-space of, I would love for someone to come along and deal with all the money, and take care of all that, and I could just be an artist for the thing. Instead of, with Obselidia, where I drove, and I made it happen.

With my third film we’re doing that again. The conventional path is not where I belong. I don’t think I do my best work there. I realized the best thing for me is to create my own opportunities and make the work I was born to make, the work that’s in my heart and is true to me, and not do this other thing, which doesn’t feel authentic.

I want to keep making films. I want to get better at it. My last film, also, I learned so much. Even though the experience was a difficult one, I learned that I just want to make another movie, right now, and try to learn from that, do other things differently and learn from that. I don’t want to wait another five years and have made a film that’s not the film I wanted to make. I just want to dive right into something where we can apply the things we’ve learned, and maybe this time I’ll get closer to the truth.

What general mistake(s) do you sometimes see peers make, that you wish they’d address?

I live in Los Angeles, and I know a lot of people who want to make films. And a mistake I see repeated, over and over, is this thing where somebody will have a script, and they want to make a film, and they enter into this conventional path to making a movie. Whereas they have a path to make it micro-budget but they don’t want to do that because now they’ve got an agent who says to them, we’re going to get it to the right cast, we’re going to get it to production companies, we’re going to get a real budget, and it’s going to be huge and amazing. And I see friends, they get excited and the carrot is dangling. “We’re sending it out to Meryl Streep and Patricia Arquette,” and stuff like that. So they think, “We’ll, I’m not going to do it, this micro-budget way of doing it. I’m going to hold out and keep sending it to people.”

And six months pass and they still haven’t heard back from these people and then they finally hear that those people passed, because, hey, they have a lot of offers on the table. And then a year passes and now they’re going out to other people. And two years pass. Five years pass. I’m not exaggerating. I know people who have been trying to get a certain movie off the ground for five years now. And it still hasn’t happened. And I think, if you’d just, at the beginning, had just made it.

At this point it’s five years later and sometimes they can’t even remember why they wanted to make the movie. Five years have passed. They’re in a different head-space. They love different things. They’ve written other things.

I understand, on one hand, what that is, why people continue down that path, with that carrot dangling in front of them. It does at least keep them on that particular treadmill. But, I also think: “Is that validation for your work going to come from other people?” Because I think, in a sense, that’s what they’re seeking. If you can attach some star names, you feel validated or bigger in some sense.

I just try to encourage my friends who want to make films to make films. Not to get on that treadmill where you’re going to spend years of your life trying to make a film. Trying to put it all together. That may or may not happen. And then years have passed and you still haven’t made a film. Whereas, the other path — you make it. You take power for yourself and you do it. And, no, its not with Meryl Streep or Patricia Arquette, but you can find fantastic actors, and you’ll make it, and you’ll grow from it as an artist and you’ll have that natural flow and progression we’ve been talking about. You learn from it, you move on, and you do something better.

That’s one of the mistakes that I see very often. Of course, sometimes it does come together for those people, it does work out in the end. Though very rarely, from what I see.

It kind of kills me. Just do it. If you want to make films, make films. Don’t get caught up in all that.

What are you most proud of, in your career or in life?

Immediately, what springs to mind is my family. Is that corny? It’s really true. My husband and my son — I’m just really proud of the life we’ve been able to create for ourselves and for our little guy. Nothing else matters, in a way.

This is a crowd-sourced question. What’s your process? How do you make time to work? Do you have any rituals you hold yourself to, to get things done?

I am definitely an early riser. Since I have that little guy, in particular, I wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to write. I definitely believe I work best first thing in the morning. Later in the day my brains cells don’t seem to function with the same amount of clarity.

I like to create that quiet time to work, to access the subconscious in that quiet time. When I’m writing a first draft I absolutely hold to the rules: “Don’t look back”, and “Write four pages a day, minimum”. It’s just something I’ve always done, and it’s the way for me to get through things.

I find first drafts really impossible. It’s like everyone says: writing is rewriting. Until you have something to rewrite, though, you’re in trouble. So when I’m writing a first draft, that’s my rule. Four pages a day, whether that takes me half a day or an hour. It has to be four. It could be the worst four pages written, ever, in the world, and I just give myself license to write dross. The important thing is that I get them down. I really hold myself to that, when I’m doing a first draft, so it doesn’t take too long to get it out.

That’s the writing part of it. And I think I’m a terrible friend. My friends will tell you that, actually. Because when I am writing something, I disappear. I miss birthday parties. I miss everything.

I feel really lousy about it. Because, when I’m in that space, it’s like giving birth. I just have to let myself be with it. Even with what I watch and what I read, I’m really specific and particular about it when I’m working on something. It just takes over your consciousness. I can’t do social things when I’m in that mode.

It’s just focus. As much as you can dim out the noise, the better. Everything is a distraction. Get the distractions out the window.

Production is like that by necessity, I’ve found. It’s just so time-consuming. It’s just your whole life. There’s no life other than shooting, when you’re shooting. I feel like screenwriting is similar to that, in a sense. You could do other things, but energetically it doesn’t feel right.

Having a child makes you far more efficient. I look back to before I had him and I think — all that time! I wrote my second film three months after my baby was born. And he just turned three. I wrote it over the first year of his life. He would nap, and then, for forty-five minutes, I would sit down and write. It was sort of like: “Go!”

Suddenly, you view every minute like that. Having a child makes you much more efficient. Because they take up so much of your time.

Another crowd-sourced question. How do you balance the artistic lifestyle with the need to make a living?

I think it’s challenging. For me, I was lucky, in that I never expected to make a living as an artist. So I’m always in awe when I’ve managed to make it work.

Over the years I’ve learned the art of living an elegant life with very little money. I’ve kind of mastered that art. If I wanted to be rich I would have become a banker. I’ve followed the path of yoga for many years and just feel like I live an incredibly rich life without a lot of money.

Somehow, between my husband and me, we make it work every month. Certainly, we’re very far from rich. I think you have to become comfortable with uncertainty to an extent. Freelance is like that. There’s no big job security. There’s no pension. You have to be someone who is willing to embrace that. And I always have been. It’s just how I’m wired. I’ve always found the most important thing in life is to be doing what I love to do, more than earning a ton of money doing something I don’t like, so I can buy stuff I don’t really need. That’s never appealed to me.

Having said all that, it’s not always easy. It’s not. Since coming to America, unbelievably, I have made my living completely out of writing and making films. Some years have been better than others, and some have been very slim. But it has worked out and hopefully it will continue. I’m interested right now in the idea of this whole question of sustainable living. It’s very fascinating to me for artists. I’m really interested in it — we’ve talked about it a little bit — in how to use these new technologies to create a different way of life, that is not dependent upon the mainstream corporate entities that exist, and getting work from them, but going directly to audiences.

I’m curious about this whole new model that’s evolving. I should say also that I teach workshops about filmmaking and really the whole model of making your own work from start to finish. From developing a script right through to distribution. It’s really interesting, when people come to those workshops, to hear how they are making it work.

I think right now we are in this exciting place, where for artists, filmmakers like ourselves, there’s a new possibility for distributing our work that wasn’t there five years ago. I’m just at the beginning of learning how to make this new model work, but there’s a potential which has never existed, before which is really exciting.

Where can readers find more info about you and your work?

Our website is www.rebelheartfilm.com. That website sort of encapsulates a lot. There’s a page about the projects, the films, and also about the work we do to help other filmmakers.

602066_10100681300095942_1773576913_n (2)Like my style? Subscribe to my list for advanced/exclusive (and free!) access to new (creative) content produced by yours truly. I send one email per month.

Shooting Your Own Script? Watch For These Mistakes

Woah. Photo credit: Rebecca De Ornelas.
Woah. Photo credit: Rebecca De Ornelas.

As announced (via a fun video) in my previous post, I recently completed a rough cut of The Videoblogs. In editing the film over the course of the past several months, I have observed a few things about the relationship between the script and the footage that I want to share, in case any might help other writers or filmmakers (particularly Writer/Directors) who are planning to shoot their own script or considering this option.

It’s a path I recommend, though it’s not easy, and while The Videoblogs is my first feature I have come across some of these same lessons before, while producing shorts and a featurette (try to avoid ever making a featurette). Some or most of the below are potentially even unavoidable, but I think any way we can learn from even “normal mistakes” can help lessen the scope or impact they might have on the end products (the films) in the future.

Similarly, none of these observations are new, to experienced filmmakers especially but, really, anyone with a prolonged relationship with project work. I went into the edit aware that I was going to be creating a different version of the film that was shot, which was itself different from the version that was written, which was itself the best I could do to translate thoughts and feelings and pictures that were banging around in my head…onto the page. Still I think looking back and comparing what was written to what (so far) appears to be landing in the actual film is a useful exercise for growth.

Also, The Videoblogs is as much an experiment in sourcing out (or honing) a contemporary model for quality low-budget filmmaking, as it is a sincere effort at making art and getting it out there. So another reason for taking this time to share these observations is out of the hope that they may be helpful to anyone thinking of doing the same now or in the future.

It always helps to hone a script to the point that time and money can be saved, or better directed towards the right material that will ultimately make it into the film. But in the (very) low-budget sphere, these sort of savings arguably have a larger impact — they can be the difference between pulling the whole thing off at all. More than filmmakers with higher budgets, independents need to truly maximize every second and resources in order to arrive at the best possible version of the film.

Along these lines, I think the best way to report on my findings is to direct my “advice” to someone who has a “final” draft of their script and is on their way to production — though much of the below can be considered at any time after the first two or three drafts. A lot of what I’m about the dive into is about making the script better — which is an obvious priority but not always one we’re able to face up to, even when we’re rewriting with this sincere intention, and especially in cases when the director and writer are the same person.

As a sort of aside, while getting trusted feedback during rounds of rewriting should always be part a script’s journey — in my experience it’s extra important for Writer/Directors (or Writer/Producers) to arrive at as honest an estimation of a script’s strength and weaknesses as possible, separate from your own ego, via several rounds of peer review. I’ve even realized lately (more on this below) that I still need to get better at this personally. So please understand that I include myself  — especially my younger self — in the “judgments” contained within the following two paragraphs.

To be blunt: I long lost track of the amount of times I have started watching independent films in particular (even those with a healthy scattering of festival laurels) and stopped very early on in the running time. Almost always, it’s because of “bad” writing (more accurately, unfinished or polluted rewriting). Many times, I’m left feeling like the filmmaker either isn’t a writer (if they’re directing and writing), didn’t trust or adequately challenge the writer (if they’re just directing, and collaborating with a peer) and/or didn’t do his/her project justice by seeking out tough feedback, either by going through that difficult process personally or by seeking out the opinions of peers who will challenge them (I have found that employing both strategies is best for me).

Not all advice is good, and not all advice has to or should be taken. But definitely it should be sought. And in the very low-budget, self-propelled indie sphere, no one is going to force you to chop away at your script, especially as late as the month before production — at which point everything can often feel too much like a moving train, imbuing the risk of changes with a disproportionate charge of fear. Table reads and rehearsals are a good way to start doing so, however, because good actors often have a more direct feel for what’s working on a character and dialogue level than readers, (or even some writers who are too close to the material), but I’ll get to that in a moment,

Anyway. On to it.

Watch for under-confident writing

At several points while editing, I noticed our talent struggling (valiantly) through certain scenes or parts of scenes. Their performances weren’t bad in these instances — our cast is talented and stocked with hard-working pros — but in observing these shots or sequences against others that definitely worked, I found what I believed to be the difference. It was the writing.

Rehearsal smoked out some extraneous material.
Rehearsal smoked out some (but not all) extraneous material. Photo credit: Zach Nading.

I revisited the script, upon encountering many of these scenes, and what was not clear to me before production became immediately apparent now during editing — several scenes were buttoned (at the top and bottom) with under-confident writing. I meandered sometimes on the way in to what a scene was about, and/or lingered too long on the way out if it.

Now, partially, this was a byproduct of a purposeful decision (also related to budget) to write a more conversational, real-world script. This seemed a necessity in order for our story conceit (which jumps between videoblogging and real life at many points) to work in a convincing way. However, it doesn’t change the fact that my talent couldn’t find enough of a foothold in that reality at those certain points. And a few scenes (but not too many) didn’t work altogether.

As a student of filmmaking, I know that this happens. It didn’t happen, really, with my short films. It did happen with the featurette. I think the long-form production is just a different animal in this sense, in that the stakes are higher and the demands of storytelling are greater and more complex. Sometimes, it’s just safer to shoot with a bit of breathing room. Still, again, the hope is to create as little waste as possible from production to production. Under-confidence simply doesn’t belong anywhere within a professional product. I don’t mean to suggest that we can or should stop the feelings that inform under-confidence — we just have to guard against them at every stage, in my opinion, to protect the story and the film.

In looking at these longer-than-necessary scenes on paper, it became clearer to me, after the fact, that many could have been cut down. As compared with the majority of our timeline, the cuts were minor. But some material could have been excised on a script level. I could have squeezed a little more juice out of our budget and schedule by facing up to the under-confidence that was padding the narrative. A good editor is going to cut such bloat (I try to be a good editor, even when it hurts my other heads). And, again, a good actor can’t do their job in spots where there’s no soul in the words — though a kind one will try.

Thankfully, none of this was so bad that I was left very regretful about wasting time and money. Regret’s kind of a waste, in itself, anyway. I just want to do better next time.

Watch for over-confident writing

Conversely, I have also made similar cuts, moving from the script to the edited timeline, at points when the writer in me got too confident, and doubled-down on using only the words to express himself, when in fact, in a film, cameras and performances (and the edit) are going to tell the story. These scenes revealed themselves in a similar way as those weighed down by under-confident writing. They were clearly too intellectual for the talent to fully embody, because there was too much pomp in the words and not enough animus.

Lead actor Rebecca De ornelas "records a videoblog".
Some “vlog” entries remain “talky”. We continue to trim them in post. Photo credit: Zach Nading.

Arguably, this over-confidence could also be labelled as more under-confidence (dressed in nicer clothes). There are a few easy questions, that I already have learned to ask myself in drafting (but which could have asked again before shooting) that can help root out such scenes. What’s this scene about? How does it feel? Is it more about me (the writer) than the character? Should something else be here? Does this need to be here at all?

That third question is especially important. It’s hard. We can’t bring ourselves to the table, to write the thing in the first place, without putting ourselves into it. But the aim, in my opinion (and experience) needs to be directed towards the audience. That goes for trust, too. It’s important to remember viewers can (and must be) trusted. Very few people, if any, go into a narrative thinking about your (our) insecurities — but they will be taken out of the narrative if/when those insecurities manifest on screen.

A good story comes from a deeply personal place, but we’re not authentically tapping into that place at points when our words veer into what we think needs to be said. Thinking doesn’t enter the process, in this way, in my experience. Perhaps conscious thought helps with resolving issues of reason or or plot, for pondering major structural or tonal problems that are worth deliberating over, in between writing or rewriting sessions, but then things need to be turned back over (in my opinion) to the subconscious, the muse — the actual writer. The intellect can give directions, and even navigate, but shouldn’t drive the van, for the most part, when it comes to what goes on the page and stays there. I don’t know why the story is in a van. We’ll leave that to the imagination.

To be more specific on this point: I have historically had a tendency, in my writing, to speechify. Multiverse — which is very stingy on dialogue and intentionally broad and open to interpretation in story terms — and, conversely, a lot of shelved, overly-thinky previous scripts, helped a great deal in curing me of this affliction. But a few scenes (and parts of scenes) slipped into production for The Videoblogs that could have been cut. My writer’s ego thought he could sneak them past. The editor in me now scoffs — and they’re gone.

Cut jokes written for joking’s sake

While it was never a tough decision to make, it nonetheless stands that it was still a choice to move forward with a film centered at least in part around depression. We know this will continue to be challenge, heading into distribution.

The joking started in fundraising. We honestly let them keep the donuts.
The jokes started in fundraising. We honestly let them keep the donuts.

In recognition of (and respect for) this challenge however, I made it a point NOT to shy away from moments of humor in the film. The sad and the funny are closely related, and, further, making room for representations of the real humorousness with which difficult moments tend to break…felt like the right thing to do during scripting. In watching the rough cut once through since completion, this appears to have been the right move. The film’s funnier than even I expected. Much of the credit for that belongs to the cast.

Still, especially once the mood of the film begins to lighten — there were some moments when, in drafting the script, I failed to recognize (or accept) that I was disrupting flow by leaving something in “because it’s funny”. Maybe I subconsciously knew this, since, again, many of these instances appear at the bottom of scenes, or safely in between scenes that flow more seamlessly together with the joke removed, but it doesn’t change the fact that some, while funny, didn’t move the story forward or, as was the case more often, actively broke the story’s motion.

This didn’t happen very often at all, but it happened more than once, and, beyond that, jokes tend to be easy to shoot quickly (after getting adequate coverage) and they help keep things fresh on set. So I don’t think it’s essential to go to town with the red pen in this regard. Just something to watch out for.

Scrutinize (cut) expository shots and scenes

Technically, this is yet another form of under-confident writing, but it’s a little different than what I wrote above, since I made this “mistake” on a much larger story level, versus within a scene.

Pretentious Michael explains why the scene simply MUST stay.
Pretentious Michael explains why the scene simply MUST stay. Photo credit: Zach Nading.

One of our longest and hardest days of shooting involved running around the city, on foot and via the subway, with a bare-bones crew of four, for New York City exteriors. We set aside almost an entire day to grab a bunch of quick shots of lead actor Rebecca De Ornelas going back and forth to work. These were meant to be woven into a video blogging sequence as cutaways, in order to break up a pattern of similar sequences that dominate the early parts of the film.

And there, in retrospect, is the first red flag — I wrote those scenes because I was worried about isolating or losing the audience during what’s definitely still a difficult first twenty minutes or so.

The Videoblogs was always just going to be that kind of film. I’m decently sure that a small percentage of people, if and when we distribute the film beyond our core audience, are going to abandon it completely before the first ten to twenty minutes are up (despite what I’m saying, we’re still taking a close look at condensing this material as much as possible). This isn’t because the writing or the performances or the story or the footage is bad, or that we made any major mistakes — it’s just that those minutes are hard to watch. Anxiety and frustration co-mingle into teary stuff. Things get uncomfortably direct. It’s just the way this story had to go.

The exteriors, I think, were written out of a fear of this knowledge, which I think is understandable. Again — I don’t regret shooting them. And I’m still using some of the footage towards different ends.

But the main reason they didn’t work for me, when I started editing, is because they interrupted Rebecca’s work in really bringing her character’s desperate isolation to life. Especially early on, The Videoblogs isn’t meant to be framed around the reasons why the main character, Margaret, feels isolated, or even to provide a context for her mental/emotional state as a whole. Instead, we’re meant to witness (and hopefully relate to) that isolation. Bringing the camera outside of a close observation of this behavior, at all, never mind bringing outside her apartment (which she barely leaves), too frequently — it just doesn’t work.

Finally, The Videoblogs is also a film set very firmly in the neighborhood (Flatbush/Ditmas Park) in which it was conceived, produced, and shot. While Margaret, as so many Brooklynites do, works in Manhattan — this just isn’t a film that takes all of New York City as its world. There’s obviously overlap between a characterization of the city at large, and Margaret’s neighborhood, but moving her too often away from that neighborhood — even in cutaways — proved too much for most sequences. It was overkill. It only could have belonged to a different story.

In Conclusion (Steps to Take Next Time)

To be clear, all of the above, in the context of a first feature, which despite its imperfections is still (in my opinion) coming together nicely — isn’t damning. It would have been great to realize all of it earlier, as I said, to save a very slight amount of time and money. Some of this probably just needed to be learned in execution before I really believed it. I make that point, specifically, because I think there’s an opposite danger in gripping the controls too tightly, as well, before shooting. It’s better to have extra footage, and feel a tinge of after-the-fact anxiety, than to end up with not enough material to craft your story — which is a recipe for far worse feelings.

"You're going to do it again?" Probably. Ugh.
“You’re going to do this whole thing again?” Probably. Ugh.

Still, l think I will take a few extra steps, the next time around, to minimize these sort of mistakes.

We never did a reading of The Videoblogs…

…which at a certain point wasn’t going to happen within our production time frame, but I think they’re always a good idea. It’s not hard to put a reading together and I think that listening in on one, and hearing feedback, would have helped me to see (and accept) some of this stuff beforehand. It’s a cheap way to help make the film better, sooner, trading low risk (except to your ego, which could use the douse, anyway) for potentially high-rewards.

Reach out to trusted next-level peers

On a related note, next time I will work to have a few trusted, last-pass readers available to offer feedback on my “final draft” (the draft that’s going into production). I always seek review several times throughout the life of a script, but I think I could have added one or two more experienced people to the mix this time, later in the game — if only out of respect for the newness of the endeavor. Specifically, I could have been more bold about seeking feedback from writers and filmmakers that are one step ahead of me in career experience (though we’re working to correct this now, with the rough cut). On that note, please feel free to get in touch with me in the future if you’re several months from production on an indie feature and have further questions that I may be able to help answer (after having done it once).

Finally — and this is a lesson that I’m reminded of after every film I’ve ever made — to accomplish all of the above (especially on a slim budget) I want to add it would have helped the film (and script) to have lengthened the production schedule by getting started even earlier than we did.

We started WAY early, because we had high ambitions for the project and literally zero resources other than time and stupid guts (we crowdfunded our entire $20K budget, some of which was spent up front on credit cards during “development”), but we could have streamlined the first feature experience by starting even earlier. Time only gets more costly, the closer you get to shooting. There’s something to be said for deadline, and for the momentum that just starting brings. I wouldn’t change much of what we did. I’d just pay more respect to the breadth and scope of the endeavor that, for almost all of us, not only was conducted on the cheap but in between and around day jobs.

So, I hope all that helps anyone planning to produce their own script soon. While I focused on The Videoblogs as an example, I think some of the mistakes I made would arguably cost a production double on a short — especially a higher-budget “all or nothing” short (as opposed to one which is more low-budget and experimental).

I’m happy to answer any broad questions anyone might have in the comments (or on Twitter), and other creatives should definitely feel free to include any additional lessons you may have learned by which the rest of us may also benefit. Thanks for reading and good luck.

602066_10100681300095942_1773576913_n (2)Like my style? Subscribe to my list for advanced/exclusive (and free!) access to new (creative) content produced by yours truly. I send one email per month.

 

Plans, Expectations, and HOLY SH*T

Woah. Thank you.
Woah. Thank you.

It’s part of the beauty (and sometimes the cruelty) of life — that it proceeds without regard to our plans or expectations. Which is my attempt at a more eloquent way of saying: Holy Sh*t.

The Videoblogs is currently 102% funded on Seed and Spark.

With a little less than two days to go.

How did we get here? The short answer is that a generous supporter, in the words of a pal, helped us “kick the door down”. We went from about 62% to 102% funded in an instant.

This was not planned or expected.

Before that, two friends from college had each contributed at a high level, to bring us to that previous point of 62%. What they had to say to me when I rushed out my sincere and surprised thanks — left me in tears.

Rebecca and I (and the whole team) are so very grateful for all of you. I cannot express that sentiment enough.

Thank you. Your support means the world to us. It serves as validation, and a reminder, that the struggle and the fighting is worth it. As I have said before — we promise to bring a great film to you.

Thank you.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, for the next few days, we would still encourage you to contribute if you can.

Here’s why:

  1. We’re already operating at a very limited budget level for a feature film. This is not at all a problem and we continue to be grateful to be in this position, but any additional funds past our goal WILL be similarly stretched to make challenges (and they will come) less challenging.
  2. We want you to see the film first. As summarized here, this film is also an experiment in helping to arrive at a model for sustainable, empowered indie filmmaking. Every person who simply “purchases” advance access to The Videoblogs via a $10 or $20 contribution is voting for this model. What does this mean? It means you’re helping us make the films that a growing subset of people want to see but which aren’t getting made by big business. We’re going to get The Videoblogs to you quickly, because you are our supporters. After that, who knows? It could take a year or longer before the film is otherwise made available.
  3. In line with our bootstrapped approach, we have not budgeted much money for post-production (editing) or marketing. This is because I can do most of it if I have to do it. But I am simply not as skilled or as efficient at certain elements of post as a professional editor, colorist, marketer, etc. And, even so, the completion of these tasks cost money. We may have to fundraise again next year for theses stages. I can promise you that if we end up with even a small surplus this time around, it will be stocked away to make that process easier.

It feels awkward to keep “the ask” open for these final days, despite our position, but these are in fact legitimate reasons. We would be doing the film, and those of you who have already supported us, a disservice by failing to be transparent about the fact that every additional little bit still helps.

The urgency, of course, is gone. I literally dreamed of puppies and kittens last night. And a few dead birds, because there are always going to be some dark corners in there.

But, let’s choose to focus on the brightness today. At least in this one regard. That’s not going to be a problem for me, I don’t think. Because all of you have made me proud to do what I do.

The Videoblogs: Why We’re Doing It (10 Reasons)

It's on.
It’s on.

My first film was a crime drama about a thug whose past mistakes catch up to him. My second? A crime drama about a two detectives and a confessed murderess who go up against a corrupt district attorney. Multiverse is as much scifi as it is drama — although as you can hopefully see there’s a lot more going on under the surface than what is presupposed by constraints of genre.

My point is that, if I wanted to, I could go out tomorrow and make something that pulses and thrills. But I don’t want to do that. Not yet. Very soon, I may want to do that, but not now.

Here’s why I want to do something else. In ten reasons, boiled down.

Here’s why we’re making a tiny, quiet film about mental health and reaching out through The Screen — about starting off painfully alone and ending up surrounded by friends — instead:

  1. This is how we feel. Feeling is everything. I used to be someone who professed this, a bit pretentiously, but I never actually believed it before now. There is what we do, and then there are the feelings behind what we do — which, for better or worse, dictate the whys of our life. Why we are who we are. Why we are where we are (and, to circle back, why we do what we do). Sometimes, in reflecting on all this, we view what we are and, dissatisfied, we seek change.
  2. We seek change. We face challenges of racism, sexism, faithlessness, hopelessness, and institutionalized injustice, here and now, today, in contemporary America. These challenges, in my opinion, are rooted half in denial or despair (on the part of the populace) and half in apathy or willful subjugation (on the part of those in control).
  3. We seek clarity. Despite all this, we believe people are inherently good — or at least inherently neutral on a moral scale. We believe much of the collective pain that blocks us from progress is obstructing paths to awareness.
  4. We seek awareness. There is no point to yelling into the crowd. The crowd is not listening. Instead, we must engage. We must dialogue. We must share our fear, our anger, and our pain.
  5. We seek a dialogue. There can be no progress without understanding. Everyone must feel heard, and all expressions exhausted, so that the paths to redemption may be cleared of obstruction, confusion, or deceit.
  6. We seek redemption. Raymond Chandler once wrote: “In everything that can be called art, there is a quality of redemption”. We believe art, and particularly the medium of the moving image, via it’s dominant position in cultural communications — is the vehicle by which redemption can be sought.
  7. We seek to make art. This is, in all honesty, all we know how to do. To quote the inimitable Marc Marc: “There is no Plan B“.
  8. We seek your patronage. This is a fact of the artist-audience arrangement. Ours is an interdependent relationship. We make films so that we can share them with you. This takes a great deal of hard work and sacrifice. We’re asking that, based on past results, you trust us enough to pre-purchase advanced access to a copy of our film so that we can get it made and then get it to you, as quickly as possible. Just contributing at all guarantees that you can watch it eventually on Seed and Spark. For $10, you can own a copy. We appreciate any and all contributions.
  9. We seek your help in growing our message. No large undertaking of note can be undertaken without participation in large numbers. If you like what we’re doing, and especially if you’re interested enough to pay for advanced access to our artistic product — we ask that you tell any friends and family who you think may be interested.
  10. We seek the grail. Partially, this last note is a test to see who lasted all the way to the bottom of the list. But, in all honesty — no matter how brazen or stupid the aspiration may sound — we do seek the grail. We believe in the possibility of an America where artist and audience remain in direct contact first and foremost, beholden only to each other, with few middlemen in between to dilute or corrupt messaging. We aspire to be able to participate in such a relationship in a sustainable way, wherein we may someday soon be able to make a living from doing our job, which is, again — making movies for you.

And that’s the story of this story. Hopefully this is all the beginning. Regardless, we do appreciate your time, your contributions, and your help in letting the world know that we aren’t completely satisfied with the status quo.

But we do have hope for change. Don’t we?

Thanks for being you. Please help us make our movie if you can.

liam_sscamp

Casting Announcement: Phoebe Allegra

Writing in with a quick informational update on The Videoblogs — this time to do with casting!

There are three main characters in the film, and today we’re excited to introduce you to the wonderful (and wonderfully talented) actress Phoebe Allegra, who will be playing Vee, a young college student struggling to survive her last years at home before striking out on her own in New York City.

headshot for phoebe
Phoebe will be playing Vee in The Videoblogs. She’s great. We’re excited.

Phoebe delivered a powerful couple of audition scenes during casting, particularly at her callback, when the room got quiet after her performance. Possibly some tears were shed.

So, obviously, Rebecca and I are really looking forward to working with Phoebe. More info about her career to this point appears below.

Please join us in welcoming Phoebe to the team! You can also follow her on Twitter here.

— 

BIO

Phoebe Allegra is a young actress currently based in New York City. Born and raised in the small town of Pell City, Alabama, she is your typical small town girl with a big city dreams and heart. Singing before she could talk and dancing before she could walk, Phoebe was consumed with dreams of performing while being influenced every weekend with marathons of Turner Classic Movie Channel, movie musicals such as Doris Days’ By The Light of the Silvery Moon, Shirly Temple’s Curly Top, and Debbie Allen & Phylisha Rashaad’s, Polly.

After graduating from high school, Phoebe enrolled in the University of Alabama’s Theatre Department where she was finally free to study and explore her acting dreams both in school and in community theatre. While still a student at UA, she got her chance at her first leading theatrical role as Mamie Till, in William Bradford Huie’s: Voice of the Voiceless at the BAMA Theatre. After completing her studies and performing in shows such as Big River and City of Angels, Phoebe graduated from UA a semester early and hit the ground running, moving to Los Angeles just two weeks later in January of 2012. Eager to begin her career, she studied film and TV acting techniques at Krater Studios and Brian Reise Studios, and landed roles in indie short films such as “Beachwood Kids” and the webseries “My Roommate the..(Gleek). However, NYC quickly came knocking on the door, and last year she moved to NYC to explore and take on its opportunities. Recently, Phoebe was cast in the feature film The Videoblogs written by Michael DiBiasio, and cannot wait to begin working with such an awesome cast and crew.

The Videoblogs is currently crowdfunding on Seed and Spark.

It's on.
It’s on.

5 Daily Questions for Maintaining Creative Productivity

This an example of me acing Question 5: "Am I taking time to enjoy life?"
This an example of me acing Question 5: “Am I taking time to enjoy life?”

This January, for essentially the first time, I made a New Year’s Resolution. Two, actually. I decided to set two goals for myself, both of which were born out of my primary obsessions for most of the second half of 2013.

I want to finish at least shooting a feature film before the year is done, and I want to maintain at least a semblance of a balanced, healthy lifestyle while I do it.

Anyone who makes art — or who does any sort of project work in particular — could and would probably tell you that these are ambitious goals. Independent filmmaking in particular, with our lower budgets and our seemingly always empty pockets, puts a great deal of pressure on the human mind, body and spirit. It does this all the time, but the toll is especially great in the months leading up to production. Production itself is often a matter of pushing limits in ways that are perhaps sometimes celebrated, and which we can of course be proud of in retrospect, but which simply are not healthy in either the long or short term. And then there’s the post-production period, which often leaves us facing long recoveries. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — even the addict’s rush that comes with having created, it doesn’t last. The truth is that making art depletes us.

Much of this is unavoidable, especially in the earlier years of a career, as we’re learning the ropes the hard way, as we invariably have to do. But, speaking as someone who has pushed myself too far in the past, I have to honestly say that I have come to the conclusion that, without balance, even art that has been hard-earned — it invariably suffers as we suffer by it, if and when we aren’t careful with ourselves. Limits can be pushed, but they also have to be respected.

For Example: One of The Times I Kinda Lost It

I arguably risked my life one day, for one of my films. Matters of budget and inexperience had led me to a place wherein I had to get my sound mix from New York to my editing bay (basically, a laptop set up in my old childhood bedroom in Rhode Island) — after 12 hours of work with our re-recording mixer. The film was set to premiere in a few days and wasn’t finished. I ended up making the drive alone, after having been awake for almost 24 hours. Towards the end, despite a surplus of caffeine, I couldn’t keep myself awake. It was three or four in the morning when I called my parent’s house (where I was living while making the film) because my fast-asleep fiancee wasn’t answering her cell. My brother picked up. I told him I needed someone to talk me through the last 45 minutes or so of the drive. It was that close. I had caught myself falling asleep at the wheel a few times.

Should I have pulled over to sleep? Possibly. There were a lot of things I should have done. Either way, when my phone battery died after about twenty minutes or so of conversation with my brother, I got desperate. I started talking to myself — loudly. I blasted the radio and opened all the windows and sang loudly. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know any of the words to the songs that play on the radio at three in the morning. When I couldn’t sing any more I came up with a sort of mad mantra, and repeated it and repeated it and repeated it. I rolled down all the windows in the car to let the cold November air inside. In short, I lost it. I went a little crazy. It’s perhaps a little funny now, but at the time it scared me — even if I didn’t admit it scared me.

How To Avoid This?

You can see why I’m eager to not repeat the same mistakes I’ve made in the past, when it comes to navigating the difficulties of making good stuff on the cheap.

As has been pretty well-documented here, I’ve come a long way as an artist and as a person since those days. I’m not even sure I would get to that bad of a place again even without my goal of balance. But I’ve come to treasure what I’ve built for myself these past few years. I still struggle with the repercussions of continuing to fight the good fight, and I still have to wrestle incrementally with my demons. I just lost a small battle to fear and doubt last night. Today, I’m all right, even though I know it will happen again. The key is to take things in stride and to avoid an avalanche.

I can’t afford to fall to madness, at any point, as I get closer to initiating my plans for making my new film (which you’ll hear about soon enough). The endeavor as a whole is going to be hard, and at times it’s going to be a legitimate struggle. I know that. But it’s also something I have to do. I have to make this film. I can’t let this need destroy me.

So, what can be done? What can I do — what can we do — to protect ourselves and our projects from the sometimes debilitating effects of long-term creative pursuits? Similarly, what can be done to protect our long-term creative pursuits from their own debilitating effects on our lives?

I think the answer is no different on the project level than it is on the macro level, as we strive continuously to live another day as artists in the real world.

Here’s what I came up with. Most of this is borrowed.

The Questions

Since the beginning of January, I have asked myself the following five questions at least once each day. Lately I’ve been trying to do this two or three times.

  1. Am I taking care of myself? It took my years to realize that I’m not good at self care. It took time and some outside help and it’s still sometimes a struggle. While everyone is different, I do believe that Americans on average — we don’t take great care of ourselves. Additionally, artists tend to be born out of complicated circumstances — not always, but much of the time. It’s important to my well-being and to my productivity to take care of myself, and to remind myself of the importance of self-care, everyday. How do I do it? Through reflection, meditation, and action. By action, I mean I try to do nice things for myself, no matter how small. Most of the time, this means taking a break or a walk or stopping everything to drink a cup of tea (it works). On a larger level, it means eating healthy on most days and getting enough sleep on most days. Sleep. Is. Huge.
  2. Am I avoiding the important? This is adapted from Tim Ferriss, who recommends in The Four Hour Work Week that we ask ourselves a variation of this question a few times per day (“Am I inventing things to do to avoid the important?”). I have long had my phone set to ask me Tim’s version of the question in the morning, the afternoon, and early in the night. It helps me keep myself focused. A lot of times, I ignore the reminder, because I know I’m on track. Sometimes, I growl at my phone, because I am not on track. Usually, this means I am afraid of something. However understandable the fear may be, it’s almost always in the way of “the important”. That won’t do. Also, an additional note: while this may not align perfectly with the spirit of what Ferriss advocates, sometimes, for me, “the important” is not a project. Sometimes, it’s self-care, or my relationships, or –more on this below — enjoying life.
  3. Have I taken a step towards my goal of making my film? I don’t care how big a step. Every day, I make sure to do one thing to move my current project forward. Sometimes, it’s just sending an email. Sometimes, it’s research. It doesn’t matter. Any tiny thing I do on any one day brings me one step closer to the larger realization of my ultimate goal. This can be easy to forget, when fear creeps in and all we can think about is the overwhelming list of tasks that must be completed to make a film, that are standing in the way of it being finished. This point of view doesn’t work. Trust me, if you aren’t already nodding your head. It’s a trap set by self-sabotage. However a big task gets done, and by whoever — it’s always a matter of steps. We don’t magically float to the top of a tall flight of stairs by staring up at them worrying how we’re possibly going to walk all steps at once. We get there, in time, by putting one foot ahead of the other until it’s over.
  4. Am I being open in my relationships with others? This is perhaps a question that’s aimed more specifically at where I am in my life right now, but I’m sharing it anyway in case a few people might benefit. Also, the question itself necessitates I mention it. Basically, I feel I’ve spent too much time holding back certain parts of myself (again, out of fear) as I’ve interacted with other people, throughout my life. Life goes more smoothly (and my work goes more smoothly) when I kick this propensity and endeavor to just be me. Focusing on openness, I have found, also helps hasten decision-making. I don’t labor over decisions or create as many scenarios in my head when I’m being open with myself and others. I’m able to more fully live in the moment. Daily meditation and informal studies of mindfulness and Buddhism have helped me immensely in this respect. Openness has numerous benefits. There’s room for tact, of course, because not everyone needs to know everything about everyone else, and we all need to protect ourselves sometimes — but I think we’ve suffered enough as people and as a society from the effects of leaving feelings unspoken. The repression isn’t healthy.
  5. Am I taking time to enjoy life? Save the best for last, right? I unfortunately need to remind myself to stop and enjoy life. I tend to work too hard. I tend to brood, when I’m not working. There is not much room for naked enjoyment in either of these default states. Even work that makes me happy — it’s still work. So I have to ask myself this question, at least once per day. When the answer is “no”, I do what I can to correct the situation. Sometimes, again, this means a cup of tea, or maybe a soda or a snack. Many times, it means taking time to read some fiction, watch a movie, or listen to a podcast. Anything that isn’t work and gives me pleasure. That includes going out. I will force myself to go out when I don’t want to, because I know by now to mistrust the feelings and thoughts I get that tell me to do the opposite and stay home and work or brood. Balance has to include joy, for me.

So, there you have it.

Hopefully, some of the above has been helpful. I’d be interested to hear what others are doing to maintain some semblance of balance while working through large projects (I include life in this category). Hit me up in the comments if you have anything to add, or any further questions about how I came up with this list in particular.

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All This Chaos: Translating The Indie Film Landscape

Our audience-building for Multiverse began with our crowdfunding campaign (even earlier, actually).
Our audience-building efforts for Multiverse began with our crowdfunding campaign (even earlier, actually).

This week, I attended Screen Craft’s inaugural New York City panel, Digital Discourse: The Future of Distribution and Content Creation, at the WGA-East. It was a genuinely great panel. You can read a summary from Screen Craft by following that link, Indiewire pulled some more highlights here, and the discussion was recorded and should be available soon online via Screen Craft and/or other resources.

That being said, I want to also chime in a bit about what I gleaned from the discussion. Bits and pieces of what was said have been banging around in my brain for the past few days, and I think some paths are beginning to emerge in there that are made out of the contributions of the thoughtful, focused, hard-working people who made up the panel.

The links above provide plenty of information on what was said. The video will offer the full set of info and insight — and I would encourage interested filmmakers to check it out when it’s available. But, for what it’s worth, here’s what I got out of it.

While not an exhaustive list, we (filmmakers and creators), need to focus on:

Realism

This is something that people generally shy away from saying (because they’re nice), but many people who call themselves filmmakers don’t try hard enough or don’t work hard enough to develop the confidence and skills necessary to achieve long-term success (however that may be defined) while at the same time cultivating their artistic voice. I’m saying it now because I’m not speaking to anyone directly, and can further bite the bullet and point at a past version of myself who was guilty of this very mistake.

I could write about this point for days, but in terms of the end-game (monetizing work to at least the point of sustainability, if not past it), it’s sufficient to point out that none of the panelists that spoke on Wednesday were wrong — the reality of the distribution landscape is that it’s not the same, that it continues to change almost daily, and that “the good days” are not coming back. The old narratives of what it means to be an indie filmmaker (perhaps even a filmmaker in general) and to succeed as one — they no longer apply. This is not news to a lot of people, perhaps. But there’s a difference between knowing there’s a mess to be sorted through and accepting the responsibility of the sorting. This is why focusing on the next three concepts is crucial.

Adaptation

Marc Schiller of BOND360 spoke passionately about his findings so far as his firm continues to partner with filmmakers to navigate this changing distribution landscape, but the lead-in to almost every specific note he made, and every recommendation, can be summed up by the word: adapt. Once we’ve accepted that the landscape is shifting, adaptation becomes not only an imperative for survival but an invitation to innovate. There’s no rule that says indie filmmakers can’t thrive in today’s current climate. But as Marc and other panelists pointed out, we have a responsibility, as storytellers, to trace the organic pathways to our audience by not only creating and delivering what we feel compelled to share with them, but to also do so in ways that appeal to what they want and expect out of the equation.

Experimentation 

Figuring out how to adapt requires testing and experimentation. Highlights from the panel, in this regard, include testimony from moderator Ryan Koo (founder of NoFilmSchool.com) and Erica Anderson (from crowding-funding and distribution platform Seed&Spark). From what I know about Ryan, it seems an argument could be made that he’s got to where he is now almost purely on the basis of experimentation. He had ideas (both creative and entrepreneurial) and combined them and tried things out. One thing led to another, in succession, over the years, until he got to the point where he’s now developing his first feature. Erica spoke about Seed&Spark’s WestFest film festival in LA, through which they were able to test some of their ideas on how to reach sustainability by putting just as much effort into collaborative distribution and community building as they did programming. Along the way, they piloted other ideas surrounding the potential for joint-revenue between filmmakers (such as a tip jar).

Marc Schiller and Adam Neuhaus (from Radical Media) detailed similar efforts to test ideas and approaches surrounding how to engage and market to customers who are actually interested in you and/or your product (a strong case could also be made that, as a creator, you are also your product). They (and other panelists) also pointed out the importance of keeping audiences happy by giving them what they want and by making it as easy and simple as possible to get it — and making the exchange fun as well at every opportunity.

A lot of this is about embracing some of the spirit of experimentation and ingenuity that has served the tech industry well in recent years — and tethering it to your creative intentions.

Tact

All of this being said, we have to think as well. It’s not enough to listen to advice and follow it blindly. This is a similar point to the one I made last week in my post about creative productivity, when I wrote about the necessity of introducing thoughtfulness and discernment into our daily considerations about what to do and how. Assuming the creative impulse takes care of itself, and/or that we’re able to establish our workflows and put in the work and get the films planned and made — a consequence of looking at the distribution landscape realistically is that we need to adapt and experiment thoughtfully as we develop the work. We need to apply strategy, at the earliest phase of preproduction, to the overall need to build, engage, and nurture an audience. I spoke briefly on Twitter with Dani Leonard of Big Vision Empty Wallet about this as well recently — all of this needs to be done after you have developed your voice as an artist (or, at the very least, as you develop it) and are thus capable of figuring out out how to truthfully introduce that voice into all efforts to get your work seen. If, as a filmmaker, you can’t do this, whether it’s because you don’t have the time or the skill set — find someone who can. Or partner with an organization who can help. Make sure that person or organization understands you and the work, and/or help them understand.

Conclusion: Opportunity is Out There

All this chaos is to the advantage of the independent filmmaker. Big distributors are struggling to adapt to the changing landscape, or refusing to focus on it based on fear or apathy. The studios could care less about what’s happening on the ground, which they can’t see from where they are anyway (I believe Marc Schiller made this exact point during the panel). If we as indies are at all doing our job right, we’re already on the ground watching change take place. Sure, we’re small and we’re broke. That’s often been true of indie filmmakers — at least so long as they hold on to the true spirit of the label. But our smallness and our financial limitations can be leveraged to our advantage. We can make ourselves quick and nimble. We can experiment freely, with nothing to fear from a fall other than another bruise on the ass.

Notice that the Screen Craft panel was smartly “subtitled” to include distribution and content creation. Notice also that I, as an indie filmmaker, also decided to subtitle this post “Translating The Indie Film Landscape” — rather than “Translating The Indie Film Distribution Landscape.”

This is because, like so many other things in our lives as hyper-connected citizens of an increasingly globalized world, it’s all starting to bleed together. So, we have a choice. We can accept the reality — the happy reality, in my opinion — of this great resettling of American independent film, and embrace the chaos and empower ourselves to become a part of its new shape, or can we do nothing and end up left behind to watch others do it instead.

Liberation Through Limitation

I know it’s been quiet, lately, around here.

I’ve been thinking.

I’ve been thinking that – after living – the most important things there are for a writer and filmmaker to do is write and make films.

Much of this past year was spent drafting Sophia The Great. On a script level, the project is almost ready to go. On a practical level, however, it isn’t.

So, I’ve decided to postpone Sophia for a while, for her sake and mine. I’m going to focus on other projects right now.

Here’s why:

  • The script, as scripts sometimes do, grew in scope as I continued drafting it. Sophia still can (and perhaps will) be produced on a slim budget, but I’ve done as much as I can (or am willing) to do scaling back scenes and locations such that they still fit the needs of the story and have yet been rendered as simple as possible, from a production standpoint, so that we can shoot the film within its likely budget range. Still, this range itself is probably outside the realm of what I can come up with at this time in my career.
  • I can’t, at present, spend time and money trying to create more time and money. I get that this is how business works. I get it’s how most feature films get made. And, actually, it’s not that I’m not prepared or willing to do this, or that I don’t have plans. I just don’t want to put so much effort now, while I am still young, burning off a surplus of energy and exhausting limited resources by pursuing possibilities that are just as likely to not work out – or to endanger my vision – than they are to morph into the solution to the problem that is financing. I’m better off dedicating myself to making good art.
  • Relatedly, due to both of the above reasons – I’m just not ready. Multiverse has proved to be a significant step up for me in my development as a filmmaker. It helped me prove to myself that I can do this, in the terms that matter most. To make Sophia what she needs to be, that time and money needs to be there. The story is delicate and nuanced. It requires tact and care. A guerilla-style shoot, which we’d have to embrace to offset budget challenges, might be possible, but not with my life the way it is right now.
  • I like my life right now. I don’t want to give up on it for a year or more to get Sophia made. I know that this would be forcing matters, rather than a simple case of facing the reality of what needs to be done. There’s a difference between making something happen and forcing it to happen. If I went the forced route, I would suffer and the film would suffer and I would resent the film and the job itself and all the work I’ve done to deal with my anger would crumble. All of this is against the spirit of creativity.

None of this means I’m going to stop reaching.

Sophia will happen. Multiverse, and then probably something else, is going to happen first.

I’m actually very excited about a particular “something else” – but I’m not going to tell you what it is yet.

What I will say is that I recently came to the above “hard realizations” more easily than past versions of my angrier self would have expected. I haven’t had much trouble acknowledging that they merely reflect reality – or a reality that I have to accept.

The other side of this reality, however, is that I remain compelled to create. Because that’s what I do. That’s what I must do. It’s what’s necessary.

I have made no secret of my dissatisfaction with the tides of American culture. I won’t spend time rehashing my grievances, or re-identifying the various possibilities that I believe exist, in order to raise awareness and advocate for change. All that can be found in the archive. Click around and have a blast or a good cry.

The imperative to get out there and address what’s hurting us has begun to outstrip the imperative I’ve always felt to not only say something, but say everything — perfectly.

So, I’m just going to keep making things, and then you can start telling me what you think. We can talk stuff over. Start a dialogue.

That’s what makes good art. In all the anxiety of trying to figure what to do next and how, over this last year, I lost track of this crucially important, core fact of creativity.

Films are business. Films require critical thinking and demand practical solutions. But they’re also (sometimes) art.

And art can thrive in the face of limitation – because art is born through limitation.

Thanks for reading. More later.

Recap: Sundance ShortsLab 2013 at BAM

While the event itself took place last weekend, I wanted to take some time this week to recap the great experience I had at the Sundance ShortsLab at BAM in Brooklyn.

Some of you may have seen me tweeting about it here and there while the lab was proceeding. I had planned to do more of that but ended up just listening. It seemed counter-intuitive to obsess over pulling quotes (though there were plenty to pull) and risk looking the next great piece of information coming from the programmers and industry panelists.

And that’s really what I want to talk about, in case any of you out there might be interested in attending either the LA session of the ShortsLab on August 10th, or another session, wherever, next year. The Lab, more than anything else, provided me and others with a glut of very useful information. And a bit more of something else, that is arguably even more crucial in the long struggle to make it as an indie filmmaker.

I’m going to be up front about this – when I heard Sundance was going to be in my backyard in Brooklyn, I was interested but unsure as to whether the Lab itself was going to be for me. The reason was simple, if flimsy. I’ve made, or helped to make, four shorts (technically three, since Multiverse is still in post) and have produced countless other short form projects that aren’t quite the same thing and yet not completely different either. The entrance fee seemed reasonable, insofar as any monetary amount can seem reasonable to an indie filmmaker, but I (like a few others, probably) still didn’t just have the money laying around.

I’m so glad I went anyway.

First, it was a little arrogant of me (and I’ll briefly continue the pattern of self-absorption by patting myself on the back for knowing I was wrong) to assume that years of making shorts qualified me to say that I didn’t need Sundance. That’s not exactly what was happening – I just didn’t want to waste money that could go towards plugging other holes – but at the end of the day a decision not to attend might as well have been based on this fallacy. As it turned out, it would have been a mistake to pass up on the opportunity.

Enter reason number one why any filmmaker, who hasn’t already made his or her first feature (and this may even still apply to a few who have – I’ve made half a feature), should attend the ShortsLab in the future. The program wasn’t just money well-spent. It was money incredibly well-spent. Further, it wasn’t even about money or time. Not fundamentally.

It’s easy to forget, when we are always struggling for funds, for opportunities – when we are simply always struggling – that there is a reason for the struggle. That there is passion beneath this compulsion towards “success” that becomes a leech on the remainder of our lives.

More than any other film-related event I can remember attending (though my festival attendance to this point has been limited), the ShortsLab felt abuzz with a genuine passion for the medium of film and a distinct and pure hunger for information and access.

A lot of the time, you walk into an “industry event” – any industry event, really – and the experience is a mix of opportunism and genuine interest. This is, of course, understandable. However, invariably, even in the arena of the arts, programmers and crowds seem to lose sight of the natural order of these two factors. To be clearer: more people are there, more specifically, to get what they need and that only. The urgency of, and the desire for, the “prize”…it overcomes and outstrips the reason for the journey.

Quite simply: the Sundance Shorts Lab programmers put the more appropriate and more crucial reverse relationship into practice – from the start. Passion for art first, business of film second. The day started, smartly, with an hour of Q&A, which allowed Sundance to dispense with the anxious “need to know” on the part of the crowd  — which can be boiled down to: how do I get my film into the festival. Then they got to the important stuff.

What was the important stuff?

While I am tempted to go into further detail on what I believe was an expertly planned and executed program (especially considering it took place over one long day), the crux of it is this: we were there to learn. To absorb the information that the festival, mostly via its invited industry guests, was delivering.

After the initial talk about the ins and outs of the shorts program itself, the majority of the rest of the day was about an opportunity to discuss the ins and outs of getting films made and made well, and positioning yourself for future (artistic and career) success. This information came from people who knew what they were talking about, and were actively interested in “paying it forward”. Which is what made it the right decision for me to go.

I learned quite a bit. I did come out of the day feeling good about how Multiverse is going. I also feel, after talking with some of the panelists, that I am on the right track with Sophia. These were admittedly priority hopes of mine for the day. But, more than anything else, I gained valuable insight into the professional process that I have not always been able to gain working on my own and teaching myself.

A few films does not an expert make. I’ve known this for a few years. Still, I wanted to provide a record of this mistake so that others might realize it as well. The ShortsLab was about shorts, yes. But it also took a long-view about filmmaking and a career in independent film. Maybe that seems an obvious natural progression out of the arena of shorts – few filmmakers make shorts with the idea of doing it perpetually – but, in my naiveté, I wasn’t completely expecting to get quite as much out of the experience as I did.

Sometimes I worry that, for an increasing number of us, who are stubborn, who are afraid, who are sensitive, who are limited and intimidated by a lack of resources and time – I worry that the struggle to learn to make films, and to excel at making them, forces us to retreat into ourselves. We condition ourselves (with a great degree of help from an increasingly callous world) to believe that the pursuit of our passion must be an impossible and solitary endeavor.

A single day on set, when it comes around to production time, always lays waste to this flimsy belief, perhaps.

But what of the intervening time and space?

At the end of the day, we are all artists – if we are at all doing it right. I don’t care what you do, what you want to do, what you are forced to do. We as humans are fundamentally creative beings. We create as a compulsion of our condition, regardless of whether we do this towards a positive end or with awareness.

And specific to those of us who pursue a more directly artistic calling – we live largely in our minds, a fact that can be a danger as much as it is an inherent necessity as we go about pursuing our particular compulsion in our medium of choice.

But film – film in particular – is about community. We, as filmmakers, cannot succeed without our mentors, our peers, and most importantly our supporters and audience. This is part of the mysterious bargain of art.

What impressed me most about the Shorts Lab was my sense that everyone there, from the programmers and the guest panelists to the majority of the audience, was there to celebrate the creation of film.

Perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising. I understand that Sundance, being Sundance, can afford to maintain a hold on this more correctly ordered dichotomy between art and careerism more easily than most. But in my experience in this industry so far, more people are more interested in credit and careerism and attention than the purity of film narrative. Perhaps this is a result of our over-capitalized society. Probably it’s more complicated than that (though perhaps not much more complicated). Either way, it’s refreshing to see an organization with the recognition and the power to keep things ordered as they should be, exert their influence in support of storytelling first, in an arena (short films) where the overwhelming majority of us get our start.

I’ve been working hard, perhaps too hard, to simply “learn the ropes” – for a very long time. Again, my festival experience as an attendee has been limited. I also didn’t go to film school. Honestly, this has mostly been because of a dearth of time and resources. When you are truly fighting the fight, few opportunities arrive, in the current economic climate, to put yourself physically in the same place as “the business”. I can’t go out to Sundance. I’m too broke and too busy making films. But I could spend a Sunday in Brooklyn doing the next best thing.

What I’m trying to say is that I was grateful to have an opportunity, despite these facts, to get together with like-minded people, to learn, and to feel at least in some small way that I was where I belonged.

Other filmmakers in a similar position as me, in any of the above terms, would do well to attend a session in the future.